Been resisting that gooey chocolate cake in the fridge for a while? Well, go on and indulge now. For research is increasingly supporting the view that occasional indulgence in 'comfort foods' - never mind the calories - can, in fact, do you some good.
The food-mood connect has existed ever since human beings began chomping on raw berries to stave off hunger. But it's only now that modern physicians, neurologists and psychologists are focusing on how certain types of foods - classified as 'comfort foods' - directly and strongly impact our minds and body. Ergo, some foods send strong messages through neurotransmitters or 'chemical messengers' to our brain, influencing our emotions and moods.
"Calorie-dense foods - like chocolates, sweetmeats, deep-fried items, junk food and ice-cream - have pleasurable associations, which lead us to crave for them," explains physician Dr Ravinder K Tuli, Head of the Department of Holistic Healing at Delhi's Apollo Indraprastha Hospital. "Similarly, certain nutrients like fats and complex carbohydrates have physiological properties which act as mood elevators. These nutrients release endorphins, the feel-good hormones, in the body, thus heightening our sense of well-being."
But what exactly are these 'feel-good' foods? "Comfort foods are those foods which address a person's emotional need more than a physical one," explains psychologist Dr Jitendra Nagpal, Senior Consultant, Vidyasagar Institute of Mental and Health and Neurological Studies (VIMHANS), New Delhi. "Physical satiation is usually not the agenda here. Since reaching out for comfort foods signals an emotion-linked hunger, the reasons could vary from depression, stress at work and broken relationships to diet plans gone awry, anything."
Hence dieticians advice that comfort food seekers should learn to distinguish between physical hunger - which builds up gradually and tells the brain clearly when to stop - and emotional eating, which is sporadic, sudden and often prolonged.
Also, emotional eating is irrational, says Ishi Khosla, a Delhi-based clinical nutritionist. "You just don't want it to end; you want to keep gorging on whatever is available, regardless of the food's nutritive value. On the contrary, real and physical hunger sends an unambiguous signal to the brain to stop when our tummies are full." Also, adds Khosla, emotional hunger riddles us with guilt while normal hunger seems "well-earned and, therefore, leads to no negative feelings".
Another way to distinguish real hunger from emotional hunger, according to some dieticians, is that the latter invariably strikes when we're depressed, bored or lonely. "And this is a really vicious circle because depression propels us to eat more, which in turn makes us put on weight," says Khosla. "And added weight makes no one happy. So make sure that you're not establishing a hard-to-break pattern for yourself." Good advice, given that women, especially, are socialized to co-relating their self-image with current beauty norms.
According to Nagpal, pre-menopausal women need to be especially careful while reaching out for comfort foods because, at this age, their hormones are wreaking havoc with their systems in any case. This makes many women overly emotional which, when combined with other factors like depression and lifestyle stress, could lead to frequent binge eating for comfort.
But is the craving for comfort foods gender- or age-specific? Are women truly more susceptible? While the jury is still out on this one, what's definitely established is that gender and age do affect one's taste in comfort foods. According to a survey done by the University of Illinois Food and Brand Lab in the US in 2000, men and older people "...prefer comfort foods that are warm, hearty and meal-related, such as steaks, soups and casseroles, while women and kids reach out for snacks or finger foods, such as chips, savories, ice-cream and chocolate".
So is consuming comfort food all bad then? "Not at all," says Dr Swati Chaddha, consultant dietician, Max Healthcare, New Delhi. "In fact, satisfying an occasional craving for comfort food is a great stress-buster because it leads to physical and mental satiety, which in turn triggers off the feel-good factor. Occasional bingeing helps us detangle our emotions and focus more productively on the task at hand. But the trick is to not give in to such binges too frequently."
Also, while we are at it, Chaddha thinks it is a good idea to shun calorie-dense comfort foods, such as greasy burgers, deep-fried items and ice-creams, and opt for healthier alternatives like fresh fruits, herbal teas, salads, and antioxidant-rich products like tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage and the beta carotene-rich carrots. Products rich in Omega-3 fatty acids - like fish, especially salmon, soya and pulses - also help satiate emotional eating binges. Ditto for items rich in Vitamin-C, like lemons, citrus fruits and green chillies. "Vitamin C is a great antidote for stress," advocates Chaddha. "So stock up on fresh juices. Vitamin C pills also work well, though it's always more prudent to consume food produce directly."
Apart from analyzing one's food intake, one also needs to probe one's emotional needs. Why is it that we are seeking comfort in food? This brainstorming, say psychologists, really works because, over a period of time, the mind learns to divert itself effectively. In fact, as soon as emotional hunger strikes, specialists advise that we should try and funnel our energy into diversionary activities like gardening, going out for a walk, meeting up with friends, writing that long overdue letter, reading a good book or playing with pets.
"Also," advises Nagpal, "keep your communication lines open. Half the problems in our society exist because we have stopped communicating with each other. Don't bottle up emotions. Meaningful communication with our near and dear ones is the best antidote to stress.